“Over the river, and through the wood, to Grandfather’s house we go,” goes the 1844 Thanksgiving poem. These days, it’s more often sung as “Grandmother’s house,” and we’re more likely to travel by jet than by sleigh. Still, it’s a familiar journey. Thanksgiving remains very much associated with grandparents. More than any other holiday on our national calendar, it’s about honoring the family matriarch, patriarch and more distant ancestors.
Children may enjoy watching the Macy’s parade or look forward to pumpkin pie. But Thanksgiving activities aren’t centered on kids. There are no candies to collect, gifts to unwrap or eggs to hunt. There’s no staying up past bedtime for fireworks or Santa or the ball-drop in Times Square.
I’ve heard neighbors talk about “going home” for Thanksgiving but “staying home” for Christmas. Even with the notoriously bad Thanksgiving traffic, people are willing to travel to their parents’ or grandparents,' in deference to earlier generations. (It’s become a choice time to bring home significant others for parental approval.) With Christmas being so much about kids, on the other hand, parents or grandparents may more often be asked to travel to where their offspring live.
The symbolism of Thanksgiving, too, distinguishes it as a holiday geared toward older relatives. Rather than a baby in a manger, or baby Cupids, or baby chicks, Thanksgiving prompts us to think about the Pilgrims. In many ways, the United States traces its beginnings to the settlers at Plymouth, the Mayflower Compact and the harvest Thanksgiving feast of 1621. We reserve the term “Founding Fathers” for the revolutionaries of 1776, but mythically, if not historically, we see the Pilgrims as our ancestors — the first generation of Anglo-America, progenitors of what would come later and what still flourishes today. On Thanksgiving, we look back to an imagined past in which America was conceived.
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Our Thanksgiving traditions, though, have more to do with customs established in the Civil War era than with the meal the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags. And we have 19th-century writer Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for popularizing the concept of the patriarch sitting “down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family” and enjoying a bountiful meal that the matriarch “prided herself on preparing in perfection.”
Hale lobbied to establish Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday, arguing that it would help unify the country and strengthen family bonds. The Martha Stewart of her day and editor of a prominent women’s magazine, Hale was especially interested in the role of the Thanksgiving hostess. She wrote in Godey’s Lady’s Book: “It is the peculiar happiness of Thanksgiving Day that nothing political mingles in its observance. It is in its very nature a religious and domestic holiday. It belongs to the altar and the hearth, at which woman should ever be present; and the women of our country should take this day under their peculiar charge, and sanctify it to acts of piety, charity, and domestic love.”
In 1863, President Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as the national day of Thanksgiving. He tends to get credit for the holiday, but Hale did the work to make it happen — just as Grandfather may ceremonially carve the turkey that Grandmother cooked.
Our Thanksgiving celebrations continue to emphasize our hosts, along with earlier generations and the power of tradition. We cook recipes that have been passed down. We may spread a tablecloth embroidered by a great-great-grandmother and set out heirloom silverware. We reserve the places of honor at the table for the patriarch and matriarch. Children, meanwhile, may be seated at a table of their own, away from the action. Graduating to the main table is a rite of passage.
Of course, not every Thanksgiving meal looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. And traditions respond to circumstance. Generational changes, blended families, scattered relatives and health issues can make it difficult to bring everyone together, or unrealistic to rely on Grandma and Grandpa as hosts. And there are the stresses of the holiday: all the cooking, all the cleaning, the headaches of travel and the peculiar chemistries of extended family members gathered in one place.
One could see in Thanksgiving rituals the reenactment of essentially sexist, as well as racist and colonialist, histories. Yet even so, the day tends to be calmer than the gift-giving frenzy to follow in December, and all the candy-colored, children-centered customs of Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter.
The adult focus of Thanksgiving has also helped it resist consumerism. An industry executive once told me that all attempts to market a cute Thanksgiving turkey as an embodiment of the holiday have failed. Yes, Black Friday sales have made their incursions, and countdown clocks are ticking as I write. I’ve never liked the idea of Black Friday. Native Americans have declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning, and, in that context, even the name Black Friday is offensive. But this year there’s been welcome pushback. Major retailers including Costco, GameStop and Nordstrom are staying closed on Thursday. Some stores are instead offering deals earlier in the week, and Cyber Monday sales are becoming a bigger deal.
And so Thanksgiving remains a day to be savored, especially by adults. We want to impress its meaning upon our children. We want to teach them to say thank you, to appreciate what they have and to be generous toward those who have less. But being thankful is really a grown-up value. Only as we grow older does our appreciation deepen. We come to understand Thanksgiving as a holiday honoring age and the hard-earned wisdom that comes with it.
Jack Santino is a folklorist at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.
Special to The Washington Post